The grandson of both the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Kent, the aristocratic and eccentric scientist Henry Cavendish was born in 1731.
After studying at Cambridge and unwillingly undertaking a Grand Tour of Europe as a young man, he spent the rest of his life engaged in experiments and scientific investigations.
He was a notoriously reclusive and shy man. Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society at the time, said of him that, 'He probably uttered fewer words in the course of his life than any man who ever lived to four score years'. Cavendish ordered his dinner by leaving notes on a table for servants to find and, because he was particularly alarmed by women, his female staff were told they would be instantly dismissed if he were ever to catch sight of them.
Although wealthy he rarely spent money on himself and wore the same crumpled and old-fashioned suit and three-cornered hat for decades.
Despite his eccentricity, he was also a gifted experimental scientist who was the first to investigate the properties of hydrogen, which he called 'inflammable air', and to prove that water was the result of the combination of two gases. He also spent long hours working on experiments with electricity. In one of these he measured the strength of a current by the simple but rather dangerous method of giving himself an electric shock and then estimating the level of pain he had experienced.
He died in 1810 at the villa on Clapham Common which he had built to house his laboratory and his library. Much of his work he left unpublished at his death. His papers were studied and edited by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1870s. Maxwell found that the silent and solitary Cavendish had anticipated a number of later theories but had not felt the need to tell anyone else about them.
No formal portrait of him exists because he refused to sit for one. The only likeness to survive is a quick sketch of him made, without his knowledge, at a Royal Society dinner.
The Blue Plaque to Henry Cavendish can be found at 11 Bedford Square, WC1.
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